Richard Perry

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Rise of the Robots

  |     |   Thoughts, Technology, Future

I was recently listening to a Radio 4 Podcast entitled “The Rise of the Robots” that got me thinking. It was a three part series that looked at the past, present and future of robots and how they have developed in our society both culturally and technologically. The first episode was concerned with where the idea of the robot originated and looked at robots/automata of the past. I was very surprised to discover the first recorded concept of a robot was in Ancient Greece (although I suppose I shouldn’t really be surprised by that given what the Ancient Greeks actually achieved in their time). It was very interesting, but what really got me thinking was episode 2.

Warning!

This may be a bit of a long, rambling, incoherent mess of my thoughts on the subject of robots, technology and the future, but it may be interesting to some. Hope you enjoy :wink:

Unimate 1900 (image by Robotic Industries Association) Image by Robotic Industries Association via Unimate - The First Industrial Robot

The second episode concerned robots in present society and how their current reality has been influenced by science fiction of the last century. Every since the first robot was introduced to the production line in 19591, “experts” have been predicting that robots would be replacing us at work and we would be left jobless. To a certain extent, that is true. A large proportion of mechanistic tasks in factories are now carried out by robots, but as a society in general, we are working more. In 1959 the world population was a shade under 3 billion and we are now at around 7½ billion people2. In theory, based on the proliferation of robots in industry and the massive population growth, you would expect unemployment to be through the roof but instead UK unemployment has gone from 2.3%3 to 4.7%4 approximately. Don’t get me wrong, that is a huge increase, especially when you consider the number of people but it doesn’t exactly show that the ‘robots’ are taking our jobs (I realise that using UK unemployment rates as the basis for my argument is a little ridiculous, but these are merely my personal musing so I don’t really care). In reality, technology has made a large number of jobs redundant over the years, but there have always been different jobs to take their place. Look at the computer industry, 100 years ago it didn’t exist, now it is a massive source of employment across the work.

On the other hand, there may come a day when ‘robots’ are carrying out a lot more everyday tasks. In the construction industry, which is traditionally very labour intensive, and often seen as being a little behind the times, there are already significant moves towards off-site manufacturing, modular construction etc. These techniques off load a certain amount of the labour intensive works to a factory that, although manned, will have a large number of robots/machines carrying out the bulk of the mechanistic, repetitive tasks, thereby reducing the number of construction site jobs available for the workforce of the future. In this instance though, I’m not entirely sure it’s a bad thing. Especially given the recruitment and training struggles we are currently having in the construction industry. According to the recent Construction Leadership Council report Modernise or Die5 entrants to the construction industry are significantly lower than leavers year on year, and woefully inadequate to cover the labour requirements moving forward if the industry doesn’t change. If robots took over the vast majority of the work through off site manufacture (and clients actually chose modern methods of construction over traditional) then the impact of people not wanting to work in the industry would be hugely reduced. Again though, this isn’t robots taking our jobs, it’s robots doing the jobs we (as a society) no longer want to do.

So do we have to worry about robots taking our jobs, or should we be grateful that we are finding alternative ways of getting the less attractive jobs done? I don’t think we have to worry at this stage really. The job market has changed significantly during the post industrial era leading to more jobs that require human thought and reasoning over human labour. Whilst robots are gradually infiltrating our industrial sectors, we still need people to carry out a large number of tasks. Our level of technology is not yet capable of doing everything that a human can do and, although technology is advancing at an incredible rate, I think it will be a long time before we have to worry that there will be no work for us.

In the future, and maybe only in Science Fiction, we have the potential to move towards a very different society that isn’t driven by capitalism. My train of thought here led me to an article by a guy called Rick Webb6 about the post-scarcity economy. This is something that is often alluded to in Science Fiction in programmes like Star Trek7. Webb argued that our current, ‘best’ economic model, capitalism, is not that great (something I wholeheartedly agree with) and that actually there are better models out there. At present we seem fixated on the alternatives that have failed in the past, without considering any alternatives that could actually work.

The concept of this (proto)post-scarcity economy is very interesting to me, and although I feel it is a long way off for us, the age of automation and robotics that we are entering now does seem to be the first step in that direction. Can you imagine a society where we are not defined by the accumulation of wealth? Well I can (that may be because I love Star Trek, but that’s another story). If we had managed to get our “shit together on education, health, and the dignity of labor [sic]”6 then maybe would could start working towards this. With the advent of the internet, education is starting to become easier, at least for anyone wanting to learn new things in later life. We are also constantly moving forward with healthcare, albeit the system is currently strained because of the lack of financial support (ironic really). Human and Workers Rights laws are also helping to move us forward with the ‘dignity of labour’ so I definitely think we are moving in the right direction.

Webb also discussed a possible route towards this post-scarcity economy with the modification of the current (broken) welfare/benefits system. This modification sounds a lot like the Universal Basic Income idea that has been touted by futurists and some economists for many years, and is currently being given a limited trial in Finland8. The premise is simple, give everyone a basic level of income regardless of who they are, and what they do. This could replace the various unemployment benefits, but it wouldn’t be conditional on the individual remaining unemployed because it is universal. That would theoretically allow those who have been made redundant, or left their job for other reasons, the freedom to find the job they really want and not just take the first available. It could also allow someone to retrain in a different field without the financial worries they would have under the current system. Now, I’m not saying this would work at all, but it is an interesting concept that could lead to the removal of the concept of money given the right conditions. Of course it could also lead to people/companies taking advantage of the system for their own gain, but I prefer to lean towards the more optimistic prospects.

Maybe by the 24th Century we will live in a society like that in Star Trek that strives only for “self improvement and cultural enrichment”6, but then again, maybe not. The only thing that is certain is that things need to change because the rise of the robots is here and we need to understand how that is going to affect us. As we continue on in the technological age, maybe, just maybe, we can use the coming changes to bring our world together, to reduce our need for material wealth and to start to fix the mess we have made of our world over the last century or so. I’d like to think it’s possible, however far fetched it seems at the moment.

If you have any interest in robots/robotics, then I would highly recommend checking out the series at Radio 4. The episodes are only a ½hour each. Then, if that leads you down the rabbit hole like it did for me, then I can also thoroughly recommend Rick Webb’s article as well.

Sources

  1. Robotic Industries Association (2017) Unimate - The First Industrial Robot. Available from: http://www.robotics.org/joseph-engelberger/unimate.cfm [Accessed 28 March 2017]. 

  2. Roser, M. and Ortiz-Ospina, E. (2017) World Population Growth. Available from: https://ourworldindata.org/world-population-growth/ [Accessed 29 March 2017]. 

  3. Denman, J. and McDonald, P. (1996) Unemployment statistics from 1881 to the present day. Labour Market Trends [online]. January 1996, pp. 5-17. [Accessed 29 March 2017]. 

  4. Office of National Statistics (2017) Statistical bulletin: UK labour market: Mar 2017 [online]. Newport: Office of National Statistics. Available from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/bulletins/uklabourmarket/mar2017 [Accessed 29 March 2017]. 

  5. Farmer, M. (2016) The Farmer Review of the UK Construction Labour Model: ‘Modernise or Die’ [online]. London: Construction Leadership Council. Available from: http://www.cast-consultancy.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Farmer-Review-1.pdf [Accessed 29 March 2017]. 

  6. Webb, R. (2013) The Economics of Star Trek Rick Webb. Available from: https://medium.com/@RickWebb/the-economics-of-star-trek-29bab88d50 [Accessed 31 March 2017].  2 3

  7. Wired (2016) The Economic Lessons of Star Trek’s Money-Free Society. Available from: https://www.wired.com/2016/05/geeks-guide-star-trek-economics/ [Accessed 29 March 2017]. 

  8. Sodha, S. (2017) Is Finland’s basic universal income a solution to automation, fewer jobs and lower wages? [online]. The Guardian 19 February. . Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/feb/19/basic-income-finland-low-wages-fewer-jobs [Accessed 31 March 2017]. 

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